Last week I wrote about the practice of Holy Conversation that we hope for each year at Annual Conference. Today, I'm reporting back.
One "conversation" has stuck in my head. It began in a session where we were voting on resolutions to send on to the larger church so that our denomination might support something that we value as United Methodists. In this case, it was about food and farming.
The conversation started around a small table of dedicated folks called "Board of Church and Society." With seven or so hard working people around that table they did their best to put a proposal together to stand up for small farms, food safety, children's health, and creation in light of the Farm Bill that will be looked at again by the US government.
However, around that first table, voices were missing. Particularly, the voices of the farmers.
At first, the response to this was anger from many of the farmers in our midst. But as I watched and listened, anger shifted to claiming a responsibility to make it better. One farmer spent hours of time to add to the first voices in order to get a better result. The document was changed detail by detail in order to reach a better solution.
The reason this conversation has stuck with me is because Wesley students are entering a similar one and finding inspiration from the cooperation between farmers and environmentalists in opposing new coal plants in Texas. The film "Fighting Goliath" that portrays this advocacy work will be shown by Wesley Club on the UC Campus this fall.
Maybe this is the conversation that God will use to make a difference in the Central Valley. Maybe we will have a better result for all that we value- humans and beasts alike.
One of the things that United Methodists do each year is gather together at Annual Conference. (One of the most confusing things about United Methodists is that we also call the geographical areas that the institution is divided into the "Annual Conference." What? I know. How can a place be "annual"? Well, the term comes from this meeting, also called "Annual Conference." Confused yet?)
Pastors and lay delegates from all of the local churches in Northern California and Nevada are currently in Sacramento. We do a lot of sitting, a lot of talking and listening (some do more of one than the other), and a lot of voting. The challenge every year is to be sure that we aren't just voting based on what we want, but based on where God leads.
Holy Conferencing is a spiritual practice that allows us to hear God through one another. So, when someone that we may not know (or like) speaks, the discipline is to be open to how God is speaking through their words. Sometimes I don't hear it, but sometimes I do. And many times the holy part comes in the singing or the prayers or the silence in between the words. I'm listening for it with burning ears this year and hoping that the 50 days we've spent "catching fire" leading up to this Annual Conference will make a difference.
Do you ever feel like this?
I am pursued by a wolf, circling me, ready to attack at my weakest moment. I am never able to be content. I am never secure.
All I can see are miles and miles of wilderness in every direction. There is nowhere to sit and rest without the hot sun scorching me. The earth has been dried up. Nothing can quench its thirst for peace. My soul has been drained past empty. Restoration is hopeless.
I am left alone to wander, lost along treacherous paths. I find myself in the abyss of fear and despair. I turn away from the Lord's rod, falling deeper into the abyss.
My stomach aches with hunger while my enemies enjoy lavish banquets.
Certainly, I will be left here to die in the presence of all that I fear. I will find no shelter. I will have no home.
Sometimes we all have those days, months, semesters. But the faith of our ancestors shows another way to view the world. A way that brings comfort. A worldview that reminds me that I am not alone.
Psalm 23 (New International Version)
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
(The first writing is a Reverse Psalm that I wrote as a spiritual practice of prayer. Try it sometime. It may make a well known Psalm come to life again.)
I have been considering breaking my fast for the past hour. My Lenten practice that I have chosen is to avoid eating a whole other meal after dinner. 9-10 pm is when the urge sets in. Tonight it has been especially strong.
Thinking about it has helped me to remember why this happens. Once again, I'm not really hungry. I'm tired. Baby woke up at 4:40. First meeting of the day at 6:30. My husband gave me the gift of a short nap by keeping the baby occupied. But then the rest of the day was all go. So now, my body is saying stop. I'm arguing, wanting to keep going but needing carb fuel to make that happen.
It's amazing how Lent can make you more intentional.
Before I would have had the meal without even realizing why. Now it will be a real choice. Even our minor temptations (like late night snacks) can reveal something about us. Major ones can too, if we pay attention. What gift can we give ourselves that might fill that need in a better way, leading toward more abundant life? For me, for tonight, that means sleep instead of a snack.
It's Lent. The traditional season for giving something up. Even people who have never been part of the church community have noticed friends or family giving up things in the weeks before Easter- chocolate, swearing, tv... Sometimes, this is just a way to test yourself, to see what kind of will power you have. While toning your Discipline muscle is a good thing, I like to describe the purpose of fasting during Lent as "making room". When you clear out something you make room for God and for the goodness God has placed around you. That nurtures the purpose God has for you, just like how Jesus was nurtured in his own 40 days in the wilderness.
My fast is food related. I have developed a habit of lazily eating a post-dinner meal late at night. You'd think I was a hobbit or something. I never really plan on eating again as I clear the table from dinner. It just happens. And usually meals that "just happen" around here are junk food.
So, during Lent I am fasting from that after dinner meal. It's not really a sacrifice, but it does make me take notice. It has made more time for late night conversation and our Bible reading. I go to bed earlier, too, usually. Or like tonight, I am spending time on music I love, the sound of the wind outside while I am cozy inside and catching up on some of my favorite blogs. These small joys have turned my fast into a feast.
We were taking a walk on Monday morning. The weather was beautiful and we were enjoying the company. It was my Sabbath. And I kept thinking of what else I should be doing, the things I could be getting done and feeling guilty for simply enjoying the day.
So why is it so hard to practice Sabbath? Everyone has different reasons. For some it is difficult to have it confirmed that the world will keep going without you doing the work that seems so important. For others, it is simply frightening to think about who you are without your work. What spark is left if the work is left behind?
Or you could be a people pleaser, not wanting to say no to others who will ask you to do something on your Sabbath. Or maybe it's the fear that they will stop asking once you say no, that you aren't needed anymore. Or maybe it's harder to please yourself than others and your expectations are simply too high.
Perfectionism, thinking too highly of ourselves, pleasing people rather than serving God- these are things that Christ wants to free us from.
Whatever your reason for not taking Sabbath time, I hope you will take a leap and try it. As with everything it gets easier with practice- at least that's what I am hoping.
"Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all you work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God." Exodus 20:8-10a
Sabbath is counter cultural in our setting. I like to start with Sabbath, because if you can practice Sabbath in western culture your life will change. It has to because life as we live it cannot continue at the same pace and include Sabbath.
The tradition of Sabbath has evolved over the years. I have given myself, and would like to give you, permission to define it for yourself. This is a much more individual understanding of Sabbath, but since we don't live within communities that practice it, it may be our only option.
When and how are the first two questions you will need to answer. When? I have chosen Sunday afternoon- Monday afternoon for a 24 hour period of Sabbath. This is because I often preach on Sunday mornings or attend other church events as part of my job, so that would not be Sabbath time for me.
How? What will you stop doing? The verse from Exodus above says to stop doing work. That is one thing I stop doing. I also stop using the computer, watching tv without a purpose, running errands and doing household chores (no bathroom cleaning!). The hardest ones for me are to not make a "to do" list and to not look at my calendar. There is some "work" that I cannot stop- like changing the baby's diapers and feeding my family. The surprise it that stopping is difficult. More about that next week...
What will you do instead? How will you make this time for God? I don't set up a rigid schedule for my day, but I have made a list of options so that when I feel agitated by not doing something I can pick from the list of things that help me to celebrate who God is and how God is present in my life. It includes: pray, go for a walk, yoga, family games, call family and friends to catch up, listen to music, dance, cook and eat together as a family (sometimes with guests), read a novel or devotional book and rest.
As I write this list I am reminded what a gift Sabbath is. And yet it is so hard to receive it.
Try it out and leave comments on how it goes this week. Next Friday will be about why we have such a hard time with this practice.